Last week brought a conclusion to Mr. Queen, which grew steadily in viewership ratings and even inspired a spin-off series and acclaim for the cast. Touted as a fusion-historical drama, Mr. Queen’s take has a modern-day man whose soul is planted into the body of a Joseon dynasty queen. The drama’s humour is effortlessly carried by the acting and chemistry of the actors and makes for a funny and enthralling watch. The mixed-gender situation, however, does raise questions in its efforts to avoid a homosexual relationship between the leads. Overall, Mr. Queen is an amusing drama sparkling with charm, as long as viewers are unwilling to dig deeper.
Mr. Queen takes place in the high-stakes royal palace during the Joseon dynasty, where a modern-day chef Jang Bong-hwan(Choi Jin-hyuk), finds himself in the body of Queen-to-be Kim So-yong (Shin Hye-sun). So-bong* – a mix of Bong-hwan and So-yong’s names – is left to navigate court politics while adjusting to their new female body. The King (Kim Jung-hyun), referred to as Cheol-jong by So-bong, seems disinterested in both his wife-to-be as well as the matters of Joseon though secrets are unearthed as the plot progresses. Extra excitement is provided by family clans fighting for political control as well as some unrequited love from So-yong’s adopted cousin Kim Byeong-in (Na In-woo) and royal concubine Jo Hwa-jin (Seol In-ah).
This review contains spoilers
Despite being a historical drama with a fair bit of action, Mr. Queen’s strengths lie in its comic moments. For example, So-bong makes Joseon’s first instant noodles, Samhyang ramen, a play-on words on South Korea’s actual first ramen, Samyang ramen. Indeed, much of the gags revolve around contrasting So-bong’s modern-day vocabulary, outlook, and cooking skills with the Joseon palace setting.
However, the funny moments are carried by the stellar acting from the two leads as well as the supporting cast. So-bong and Cheol-jong are both characters with dual personalities, and Shin Hye-sun and Kim Jung-hyun play them convincingly. Shin especially deserves accolades for her ability to pull off a disgruntled, 21st century playboy who finds himself stuck in a woman’s body during the Joseon dynasty. Her portrayal of So-bong and their antics is easily one of the most entertaining factors in the drama. Her counterpart, Kim, is not overshadowed as he seamlessly switches between his comedic and charismatic moments in his portrayal of the seemingly naive but secretly driven Cheol-jong. So-bong and Cheol-jong, both leading dual lives, lead the show with their chemistry throughout the progression of their relationship.
Aside from the two leads, Court Lady Choi (Cha Chung-hwa) and Hong-yeon (Chae Seo-eun) deserve a special mention as well. They are So-bong’s dedicated and loyal friends and servants, and Court Lady Choi and Hong-yeon are left to dash after So-bong as they run amok and wreak havoc on the delicate palace politics. Court Lady Choi always gets a snarky word in no matter how much So-bong drives her crazy, and her comedic timing along with her endless range of expressions are impeccable. The friendship between the three is a highlight of the drama itself, with a compilation of their scenes together racking up almost three million views on YouTube.
The charm of the cast is undeniable, but Mr. Queen’s faults lie in its most innovative and important plot ingredient: Bong-hwan’s occupation of So-yong’s body. The situation is hard to define as a true gender swap, as So-yong’s own soul still resides inside her own body. As a result, the romance between the protagonists cannot be labelled simply as a relationship between two cisgender, heteronormative individuals. Upon a closer look, however, any possible queer interpretations of the romance are shut down as Mr. Queen goes to great lengths to establish So-bong and Cheol-jong’s relationship as a heteronormative one.
South Korean society is not queer-friendly and representation of LGBTQIA+ people, and good representation at that, in Korean dramas, is hard to find. Mr. Queen takes efforts in order to avoid the love-line being labelled as a homosexual relationship. To justify So-bong’s attraction to Cheol-jong, a plot point earlier in the drama makes it clear that So-yong’s soul is still left in the body. As So-yong’s memories and feelings for Cheol-jong exist alongside Bong-hwan’s soul, So-bong’s attraction to Cheol-jong can avoid being labelled as homosexual. So-bong also self-justifies their feelings as remnants of So-yong’s, and when they sleep together So-bong does so under the impression that they are sleeping with Hong-yeon. The mixed-gender mind in a woman’s body means that the drama also contains no queer physically affectionate scenes.
In contrast to So-bong’s inner turmoil, Cheol-jong has no idea that a man’s soul is occupying the body of So-yong. Of course, he notices that her entire personality has changed, marking the start of his changing feelings for her. As the shift in his feelings starts after So-yong becomes So-bong, the defining feature of his attraction seems to be Bong-hwan’s soul. However, he does note So-bong as being a little strange and very unconventional, but Cheol-jong does not necessarily denote her as masculine. To him, his wife is a woman through and through. Once So-yong is revealed to play an important role in Cheol-jong’s past, it comes to light that she is the woman that he has loved since childhood. Even before So-bong came to be, Cheol-jong’s true love was always So-yong, and Bong-hwan’s soul was just the catalyst in their realization. This reveal also explains how Cheol-jong continues to love So-yong even when So-bong is no more.
The drama’s refusal to accept a romance between an individual whose gender doesn’t conform to conventional distinctions and a man who is attracted to them feels contradictory to the drama’s biggest strength: the chemistry between So-bong and Cheol-jong. Not So-yong and Cheol-jong Mr. Queen does conclude on a satisfactory note with So-yong and Bong-hwan reunited with their own bodies, though a question remains. Now that Bong-hwan is back in his own body, what is the nature of his feelings for the king?
Mr. Queen is funny and engaging, if only at face value. Outstanding acting and chemistry ensure that the drama is solid throughout its run, though raising questions about the gender situation is bound to end in more questions. Mr. Queen is far from being a provocative take on heteronormativity nor is it educational about the Joseon dynasty, but the drama is still unconventional and succeeds at being endlessly amusing until the end.
*So-bong is referred to using they/them pronouns